Category Archives: random thoughts

Life is a bowl of cherries

It’s cherry season!!


There are two sweet cherry trees on 28th Street, and my they have grown. One of them was in the fire we experienced November of 2017, and got pretty charred on one side because the redwood shed burned to the ground, and they were close together. The trees also suffer from ants setting aphids on the leaves. Sometimes the leaves curl beyond recognition, especially on the tips. And man, they really want to grow tall. I keep ’em pretty short with summer pruning. Despite these problems, the cherry trees are fruiting and surviving.

There’s something about cherry trees–I associate them with luck, maybe because of a slot machine toy I had as a child? When I look up into a tree and see those happy red cherries dangling up in the canopy, my heart opens up. Especially when the sky is so blue, and the leaves are so green. What a crazy color combo.

While we were picking cherries, I was thinking about what I had read in an online class that I just signed up for. The class is one of a series of online lady permaculture teachings. This feminine angle is crucial for me–I’ve had a knee-jerk reaction against permaculture because in the aughts when I was learning more about it, it was always taught by some white guy. I’m sure a white guy can teach a permaculture class but why was it always a white guy? It made me feel weird. So the free class I signed up was just what I had been craving, the thing that had been missing from the teachings I had experienced before: it’s called Emotional Permaculture. It’s taught by Heather Jo Flores, of Food Not Lawns fame. What I love about her and this project is they are coming at permaculture from a female perspective, where the emotional landscape is just as important as your garden landscape. Here’s a quote from the course:

In the current culture of political and environmental chaos, it is more important than ever that we cultivate a personal ability to not only endure catastrophic conditions, but also to find joy in the process. 

My kid, Frannie, climbed up into the tree and picked a bunch of cherries. I have a photo of her from six years ago when the trees were first planted. franwithcherrytree

My friend Jibril, who caretakes the garden now, said he got quite a few cherries too, before the birds did. As we drove off, I thought about Flores’s words again: we are enduring and finding joy, even though there has been–and always will be–pain too.


Back to the Roots

It’s been a weird couple of months. Feels like a horror movie, and we all want to know: when will this end?

For me as an urban farmer, it’s been a weird couple years.

I had been an urban farmer but due to various circumstances, I had slowly let everything go: the rabbits, the goats, the chickens, the bees, and finally the garden. I became a Costco shopper and I grew ornamentals. Why, I thought, should I raise chickens, when I can just buy eggs from the store? Deep in my prepper mind, I knew that the day would come when the knowledge base I had collected might come in handy again, but but I will admit it: I got soft.
Part of it was I became separated from the farm. My partner Billy and I, and our 8-year old daughter were evicted from the house where we had started the urban farm called Ghosttown back in 2003. Separated from the land we had been tending for 15 years, we settled in a duplex in North Oakland with a concrete driveway. I gave my chickens to friends, my bees absconded from the hive around the same time we got evicted. The orchard and garden are still growing, but are tended by a different group of urban farmers who are rooted in social justice, herbal medicine, and working with the people of West Oakland. I moved on knowing this was right action.
But now, with Covid raging, and cracks in our society revealed to show inequities and weaknesses in the system, we have to do something as citizens. A friend told me this is our zero gravity moment. We are all up in the air, struggling to feel grounded. When we do land, how will the circumstances be shifted? Can we make things right, finally, for once? This is what inspires me–we need to demand a new way of living. We need more edible parks like Dover Park in Oakland, we need community orchards, we need to dig up streets and plant vegetables like Starhawk told us. We need to look at models like permaculture, but not the white male interpretation, the emergent strategy version.
I am suddenly called again, back to urban farming. My friends at Sierra magazine asked me to write a little something, here’s a story about gardening with children. Also, I found myself up in Solano county picking up a colony of bees. They are happily buzzing in the backyard. I am reminded, this is how it all started before, with a colony of bees. It’s a first step toward getting grounded into the Earth again.

Damson plum season

The other day I was out watering my vegetables when I noticed my plum trees. There are two of them planted near the chicken coop. They’ve always been my low-achievers in the garden. One is a Euro prune, the other a Damson. I planted them about 8 years ago with the idea that they were both European plums, so they should cross-pollinated with each other. Every year: never any fruit. Flowers, yes, but then nothing. Maybe they don’t like each other’s pollen?

So there I am watering and I see…blue blobs. Not hanging from the branches but clinging very close, next to the trunk and on the bigger branches. Fruit, baby.

I collected the eggs and plums together. Don’t worry, I’ll wash them. This photo doesn’t do justice to their weird blue color.

So I got a few damsons this summer. I’ve got a good feeling about them. Next year, perhaps I will attempt to make June Taylor’s amazing fruit cheese, which is a non-dairy concentrated fruit paste. It’s so f-ing delicious. Maybe you can find some damsons at the farmers market and try it out. Let me know, too, if you have any favorite recipes for these blue babies.

Burnt branch blossoms

Ah, the sweet cherry blossoms are bursting forth!

You have to look closely in this photo, but the branch closest to the camera suffered in the great fire of 2017 that took out my mulberry tree and beekeeping shed. This cherry tree was growing next to the shed and, post-fire, had black limbs. I trimmed those off, and left that upright branch that seemed to be alive. They are blooming and leafing out, just more slowly than the rest of the tree–it’s about a week behind the non-fire scorched limbs. But why?

My theory is that the heat of the fire reset this limbs sense of chill hours. So most fruit trees like apples, cherries, pears, etc need exposure to cold temperatures–that is, they need to know that winter happened. A chill hour is an hour of temperatures below 45 degrees. So when you buy a fruit tree, you need to look at the tag and make sure your area has the same number of chill hours recommended on that tree’s tag. In the East Bay, we get between 600-800 chill hours, depending on where exactly you live. (If you live in California, you can look up your chill hours here.) There are varieties of apples that need, for example, 1000 chill hours in order to stimulate blooming and to set fruit, so it would be a poor fruit producer here, but in Minnesota, look out!

But what about my slow-to-bloom cherry limb? It got the same number of chilling hours as the other branches. I’m wondering if the idea that extra warm temperatures can cancel out some chill hours is at work. There is a different model that UC Davis uses, called the Dynamic Model, which uses something called Chill Portions instead of hours. Here’s what they say: “The model calculates chilling accumulation as ‘chill portions’ (CP), using a range of temperatures from ~35-55°F (some temperatures are more effective than others), and also accounts for chill cancellation by fluctuating warm temperatures.”

Maybe my conflagration was like a super warm temperature that reset the tree’s chill hours? Send any theories my way….

P.S. Note that my cherry tree is pruned in an open center pruning style. Not ideal for cherry trees–that’s more of a peach thing. According to Stella Otto’s the Backyard Orchardist, cherries should be on a modified central leader. I wish someone told me that 7 years ago!



Strong Roots(tock)

This month–according to my favorite x-cto knife wielding calendar maker, Nikki McClure–will be ASTOUNDING. So far, she has been right. All this rain has made everything seem possible again. I’m looking at new projects with a new hopefulness and light. Garden beds are fertile-seeming. And most astounding, is my mulberry tree, after being burnt down in a fire, is sending up new life.

Let me explain. On November 17, 2017, I awoke to a strange popping noise. I figured it was gunfire, a sometimes occurrence in our neighborhood. But then it went on and on. Then I thought it was someone popping some of that bubble wrap. Then the front door went, Whoosh! And I got up quickly. Whole garden engulfed in flames. Yup. It was bone dry in November, lots of dead leaves everywhere, maybe lit up by an errant cigarette? Anyway, I lost a beautiful shed that held all my beekeeping equipment, a car parked in the driveway, and worst of all…my mulberry tree.

I bought the tree from Daniel at Spiral Gardens probably 10 years ago. It had grown into a beautiful tree, sending out verdant shoots early in the spring, followed by hairy white flowers, followed by the most delicious, juicy blackberry-like fruit. Punk rockers down the street would stand outside the gates, where the tree peeked its branches over and feast on the fruit. Kids would climb the tree and get covered in purple juice, head to toe. It washed out. One kid even “painted” our car with her mulberry handprints. Now it was a smoldering stump.

I gave it up for dead. I bought another tree from Daniel. Planted it on the corner of 28th and MLK with the help of some glorious volunteers. The idea being, even more people will get to enjoy the mulberries, once it grows over the fence in the next 5 years or so. The scorched earth area, I decided to plant some pear trees that I could espalier against the fence. But then the other day I went outside and a wink of green stopped me dead in my tracks. Underneath the blackened remains of the mulberry tree was a new shoot of life, with the unmistakable shape of a mulberry leaf.

Remember that book, The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein? The little boy takes everything from that apple tree–her apples, her branches, even her trunk. By the end of the book she’s only a stump, the boy is an old man, and now he can sit on her. But if that story kept going, I like to think, and this mulberry proves–the trunk isn’t dead. It can regrow into a tree. All we have to do is give it a little time. Astounding.

Announcing…A new blog

I’m going retro and restarting this blog! Maybe because spring is here, maybe because I gave up my smart phone, maybe because I’m getting middle-aged and am nostalgic for the blog days, maybe it’s because my child is in kindergarten now…whatever it is, I’m back, and I’m blogging.

Unlike Ghosttown Farm blog, this one is going to focus on fruit trees, urban orchards, and what fruit trees mean to my life, to Oakland, CA, to people all around the world. Urban orchards are a connection to the past, a place to gather, a place to commemorate the dead. Fruit trees span the generations. Fruit trees make us think about our own short lives. There will be interviews with folks starting urban orchards or tending existing orchards. Travel profiles of urban orchards I encounter, or rural fruit orchards that can inform even the small-time grower. Book reviews, tool reviews. Recipes. Orcharding tips. Oh yeah.

I’m just learning about fruit trees and what people are up to in terms of fruit trees in urban areas. Please do send me links and info about your favorite urban orchard projects, fruit tree books, and resources.pomagranates